Thursday, September 22, 2016

Secret Mission (1942)

Secret Mission is a 1942 British wartime spy thriller. It features a good cast but it has a few problems.

A team of British agents is landed on the coast of occupied France. Another British agent had been sent earlier but nothing has been heard of him since.

The team comprises Major Garnett (Hugh Williams), Captain Red Gowan (Roland Culver), Private Nobby Clark (Michael Wilding) and a Free French officer, Raoul de Carnot (James Mason doing a very exaggerated French accent).

Eventually the British spies talk their way into the German command headquarters and get lots of photographs of maps showing German troop dispositions. Meanwhile domestic dramas are starting to arise. The village chosen for the operation was chosen because both Raoul and Nobby Clark used to live there. Raoul’s sister Michèle (Carla Lehmann) and Nobby’s wife Lulu (Betty Warren) still live there. And they don’t want their menfolk to go back to England.

Of course they must go back and do their duty and stuff upper lips are called for and all that sort of thing.

The major problem with this film is the lack of any sense of urgency or drama. The secret mission seems very vague and doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous, and we can’t help wondering if it was really important enough to justify landing a whole team of spies.

There’s a lot of time devoted to the domestic dramas and to the romantic sub-plot and also to comic relief. Too much time in fact and the movie drags quite a bit. When the action sequences do come they’re not terribly exciting.

Director Harold French just doesn’t manage to generate any real feeling of suspense or excitement.

As the release date would suggest this is very much a propaganda film. The British spies are all terribly brave and noble. The Germans are either cruel sadists or fools. Mostly they’re portrayed as fools. Amusingly their most sadistic action is to have an armoured car driving through the village playing Wagner very loudly through a loudspeaker. The French are all very brave and very patriotic and are united by a passionate desire for freedom.

There is one interesting element though and that’s Michèle de Carnot’s equivocal
attitude towards the British spies. She says that since France has signed an armistice with Germany the activities of the Resistance are quite illegal (and she has a point) and are causing needless suffering to the civilian population. In fact she’d prefer the British spies to leave at once. On the other hand she is devoted to Raoul, she does dislike the German occupation and she has taken a shine to Major Garnett. Throughout the movie she wavers between her disapproval of spies and her attraction to the handsome English spy.

The acting is at best adequate. This was one of James Mason’s early roles before he found stardom. I imagine that in later life he must have been horribly embarrassed by his cartoonish performance in this movie. Hugh Williams lacks the charisma needed for his role as the principal hero. Michael Wilding is there mainly for comic relief purposes which he performs well enough. Carla Lehmann as Michèle has by far the most interesting role and she plays it pretty well.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a comic romp. It doesn’t completely succeed in either objective. The pacing is poor and the screenplay is vague and meandering. The end result is a thriller that falls rather flat. Maybe the idea was to raise morale by portraying the Germans as a bunch of incompetent oafs.

On the plus side the German secret headquarters is fairly spectacular and the ancient armoured car that blasts Wagner at the unfortunate French population is quite amusing.

This movie is available on DVD in Region 2 and Region 4 - I’m not sure of the situation in Region 1. The Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is not particularly great.

Secret Mission has some mildly amusing moments but on the whole it’s dull and stodgy and unfortunately lacking in excitement or tension. I can’t recommend this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969)

Director Ken Annakin had scored a major hit in 1965 with the delightful comedy/adventure romp Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (originally titled Monte Carlo or Bust!) was a kind of belated follow-up and follows the same formula, albeit not quite so successfully. This time Annakin acted as both producer and director and once again he and Jack Davies co-wrote the screenplay.

This time the subject is not an air race but a motor rally in the 1920s. The earlier film spent a lot of time giving us the backstories of the various competitors while this one jumps pretty much straight into the action. As a result the characters are less developed. The style of comedy is slightly broader as well. This might possibly be due to the subject matter - a 1920s car race must have seemed like an obvious opportunity to throw in plenty of the slapstick comedy that had been such a feature of 1920s silent cinema. It may also be that by 1969 it was felt that audiences would demand much more frantic pacing.

Once again, as in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, we get a multi-national cast playing a multi-national field of competitors. From Britain there’s pompous Indian Army officer Major Dawlish (Peter Cook) and his sycophantic sidekick Lieutenant Barrington (Dudley Moore) plus there’s the dastardly upper-class cad Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas) and his long-suffering minion Perkins (Eric Sykes). There are Italians Marcello (Landa Buzzanca) and Angelo (Walter Chiari) and a team of young and beautiful lady doctors. From Germany there’s Gert Fröbe as Horst Müller who is using the rally as a cover for a diamond-smuggling operation. And from the USA there’s the brash Chester Schofield (Tony Curtis) who soon hooks up with the aristocrat but ditzy Betty (Susan Hampshire). There are some other noteworthy faces to be seen, including the great Hattie Jacques and British screen legend Jack Hawkins.

Naturally there are plenty of fairly spectacular sequences combining action with comedy and Annakin, as you would expect, handles them with energy and zest. There’s a lot of obvious rear projection but on the whole these scenes hold up extremely well.

Tony Curtis and Susan Hampshire provide the obligatory romance sub-plot. This slows the action down a little but fortunately not too much.

The major weakness as compared to Annakin’s earlier film has already been alluded to - we don’t get to learn enough about any of the characters to care very much about them. This makes the film a bit too reliant on fast-paced slapstick but even slapstick works better if we have sympathy for the characters. 

With a running time of just over two hours this movie is also perhaps just a little too long, and it’s a little disjointed as well.

Tony Curtis is OK but he doesn’t seem to be really engaged with his character. This may be more the fault of the screenplay which doesn’t give him enough opportunities. Susan Hampshire is charming and convincingly dotty.

Terry-Thomas gives us a retread of his performance in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines but he’s so good at playing bounders you don’t mind. Eric Sykes as his reluctant underling who actually despises him is marvellous, as always. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are in top form in the kinds of roles they always relished. They also have the advantage the many insane and useless inventions with which Major Dawlish has equipped his car - these wacky inventions provide some of the film’s best visual moments. These four deliver the standout performances and the movie is at its best when they’re onscreen.

Legend Films have released this film on a double-header two-disc Blu-Ray set with another Tony Curtis film, Houdini. Houdini is an excellent and extremely interesting movie and is good enough on its own to justify the purchase of the set. Making it even more tempting is the very reasonable price and the fact that the Blu-Ray transfers for both movies are pretty good - in fact very very good when you consider that this is really a budget set.

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies fails to recapture the magic of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines but while it’s far from being a great movie it’s reasonably enjoyable fluff. Terry-Thomas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are the main drawcards here and they’re always worth watching. It’s probably not worth buying this one on its own but the Blu-Ray set pairing it with Houdini is definitely worth getting and if you look at Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies as a fairly entertaining bonus film the set becomes a very attractive proposition indeed. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Dead Lucky (1960)

Dead Lucky is a 1960 British crime B-movie. British B-movies of this era, made on meagre budgets, are often surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately Dead Lucky is far from excellent - in fact it misses the target rather badly.

Ace reporter Mike Billings (Vincent Ball) has been doing a series of articles exposing the Mayfair gambling party racket. The gambling racketeers hire private houses on a one-off basis, taking advantage of Britain’s excessively complex and contradictory gaming laws. The police find it almost impossible to prove that this is actually organised gambling rather than the private gatherings that the organisers claim. Inspector Corcoran (John le Mesurier) is under a lot of pressure, particularly after a ruined gambler commits suicide, but he just can’t come up with the evidence he needs to make a case that would stand up in court.

Mike Billings is under pressure as well. His articles so far have been pure fabrication - he actually knows nothing concrete about these so-called gambling parties. His editor, Percy Simpson (Michael Ripper), is getting increasingly restive. Finally Mike gets a break. Small-time crook Knocker Parsons (Alfred Burke) gets him into one of the parties, with Mike posing as a waiter.

Mike’s girlfriend, Feisty Girl Reporter Jenny Drew (Betty McDowall), has also found a way to infiltrate the same gambling party.

This party ends in murder, with Jenny as a suspect. Inspector Corcoran now has a murder case on his hands and his anxiety to make an arrest is matched only by his lack of any real evidence. Both Mike and Corcoran are now desperate for a lead but which one of them will manage to break the case first?

The plot is a bit on the thin side but the real problem is that this movie seems to be trying to be a comedy and a mystery. It ends up being neither fish nor fowl. It’s just not funny enough to work as a comedy but the attempt to play it for laughs fatally weakens the mystery and suspense elements.

Vincent Ball is an uninspiring star while Betty McDowall is somewhat irritating. Even the usually reliable and professional John le Mesurier seems all at sea. He was certainly adept at comedy but here he’s the one actor trying to play things straight. It’s quite possible he just gave up in despair and decided to get things over as painlessly as possible and collect his pay cheque and go home. I can’t blame him. Alfred Burke and Michael Ripper try very hard indeed but with such an indifferent script there’s little they can do except to look as enthusiastic as possible.

Montgomery Tully was a competent journeyman director but in this film he’s just going through the motions.

The DVD cover tries to convince us this movie is “noir-influenced” - while noir and gambling do tend to go well together I could detect no genuine noir influence here at all.

Since the 1930s film producers had been seduced by the idea of combining the murder mystery or crime thriller with comedy. Sometimes it does work but more often than not it doesn’t. To make it work you need a script with real sparkle and with decent gags. If you don’t have those ingredients you’re better off just making a straightforward murder mystery, or at the very least keeping the comedic elements to an absolute minimum.

Network’s DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty good.

Dead Lucky (the title is a pun and turns out to be the only mildly amusing thing about the movie) just doesn’t make the grade. As a murder mystery it falls flat. It’s hoping to be lightweight fun. It succeeds in being lightweight but it fails to deliver on the fun front. 

To be honest I don’t think this one is even worth a rental.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Terror (1938)

Few authors have had more films adapted from their work than Edgar Wallace. As late as the 1960s, thirty years after his death, Wallace adaptations were still extremely common and extremely popular. The Terror, based on one of his plays, is a lively 1938 British production that owes something (in fact quite a lot) to the Old Dark House genre so popular at the time.

The story starts with a daring and brilliant gold robbery. Joe Connor (Henry Oscar) and Soapy Marx (Alastair Sim) were sent down for ten years as a result but the mysterious mastermind behind the robbery was never apprehended and the gold was never recovered. Now Connor and Marx are out of prison and they want their share of the gold.

They suspect the answer will be found in the rambling old house of Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner). The Colonel is using the house as a guest house and the inhabitants are an odd lot. There’s Mrs Elvery (Iris Hoey), who claims to have psychic powers, and her mousy daughter Veronica (Lesley Wareing). There’s the Colonel’s old friend Goodman (Wilfred Lawson) and there’s habitual drunkard Ferdy Fane (Bernard Lee). There’s also the Colonel’s daughter Mary (Linden Travers). And more guests seem to keep arriving, including a slightly dotty clergyman.

Naturally murder soon follows. In fact several murders. Superintendent Halleck of Scotland Yard is on the case, assisted by Inspector Dobie (Edward Lexy). They are perplexed and at first can make no connection with the gold robbery. One thing that is apparent is that the inhabitants of the house are not necessarily all that they appear to be.

This is a lighthearted mystery romp and it has the trappings one expects from a Wallace story. The house is a former priory and of course it has its secrets. Secret passageways are suspected, there is a crypt beneath the house (now bricked up) and a spooky tomb in the grounds. Strange noises are heard and sinister monkish figures are seen lurking about. There are more modern touches as well - poison gas and dynamite.

The diabolical criminal mastermind behind it all remains shrouded in mystery. It might have been better if he’d been given more of an opportunity to strut his stuff. Mind you, once he gets going he certainly makes up for lost time.

Alastair Sim, not yet a star, has only a supporting role but being Alastair Sim he manages to steal every scene in which he appears. Bernard Lee looks impossibly young and has to appear drunk in nearly every scene, which he manages with mixed success. Linden Travers and Lesley Wareing get to do a fair amount of screaming and fainting. Wilfred Lawson makes the most of his role as well. It’s a solid and professional cast.

This is a low-budget feature but looks reasonably impressive with some suitably gothic-tinged sets. The opening robbery sequences are done quite well.

This was the start of Richard Bird’s brief career as a director (although he had a more distinguished career as a character actor). He brings enough energy to the proceedings to keep things interesting. William Freshman’s script is adequate if occasionally obscure.

There is a slightly stage-bound feel to the film but Old Dark House movies always do tend to be somewhat stagey.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty good considering the movie’s age and obscurity.

The Terror is lightweight but good-natured fun. The danger with this genre is that the comedy can overwhelm the suspense but that’s not the case here. This is a thoroughly enjoyable potboiler with an excellent cast and with just a hint of horror as an added bonus. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wide Boy (1952)

Wide Boy is a 1952 British crime melodrama with some marked affinities to film noir. Merton Park Studios specialised in cheap B-movies that often turned out to be quite decent little movies.

Benny Mercer (Sydney Tafler) is a wide boy - he’s a petty crook whose criminal activities are very trivial indeed. Things like hawking without a licence. Or selling items that may have fallen off the back of a lorry. These heinous crimes usually result in a small fine. He has never been to prison. The truth is that Benny has neither the nerve nor the imagination  to get mixed up in any kind of serious crime.

Things are not going well for Benny at the moment and then suddenly an opportunity presents itself. It’s still a fairly minor crime but it in turn offers him an opportunity to get his hands on some real money for the first time in his life.

It’s too much of a temptation to resist but the truth is that Benny is badly out of his depth. He has no experience in such matters. He certainly has no experience in crime on such a scale and he makes a very serious error of judgment. He thinks he’s buying insurance but he could be putting a noose around his neck.

It all goes terribly wrong, as tends to happen when amateurs think they can play in the big time. In a single evening Benny goes from aspiring big shot to hunted animal. Chief Inspector Carson (Ronald Howard) is a rather gentle and amiable policeman but he knows his job and time is running out for Benny. 

All Benny really wanted to do was to have enough money to buy a few nice things for himself and for his girlfriend Molly (Susan Shaw). He’s not really such a bad guy, merely weak and prone to the temptation of easy money. In normal circumstances he would have gone through life without doing any great harm to anybody. What seemed like a lucky break turned out to be very unlucky indeed. In this sense Wide Boy probably just about qualifies as film noir. Benny discovers that one mistake can be enough to damn a man. His downfall is certainly brought about by his own character flaws, combined with lousy luck.

Sydney Tafler was an actor who never made it stardom. Lead roles in very low-budget movies such as this one were as far as he got. In fact he was a fine actor and when well cast (as he is here) he could deliver some pretty impressive performances. 

Susan Shaw is effective as Molly. She does at times give Benny a hard time about his lack of money, and to some extent she is therefore to blame for tempting him into serious crime, but she’s not calculating enough or ruthless enough (or heartless enough) to be a femme fatale.

Ronald Howard gives a characteristically easy-going performance as Chief Inspector Carson. 

There are some definite film noir visual moments and the climactic bridge sequence is wonderfully atmospheric and doom-laden. This was the first feature film directed by Ken Hughes who went on to have an interesting if up-and-down career. Wide Boy qualifies as an impressive debut.
Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good transfer. As usual there’s pretty much nothing in the way of extras (in fact nothing beyond a somewhat threadbare image gallery).

Despite its low budget Wide Boy is an entertaining, well-crafted and visually impressive little gem of a movie. Sydney Tafler’s superb performance is a major asset. This is an excellent low-key British film noir. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

Harry Street (Gregory Peck) is dying. He is dying somewhere in Africa, within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry is a writer and big hame hunter and he has returned to Africa one last time, in an effort to recapture his inspiration (and to answer a riddle). Now he lies dying and he looks back on his life, a life of failure and disappointment (or that’s how it appears to Harry anyway). This is the setup for 20th Century-Fox’s lavish 1952 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Harry’s story is told in a series of flashbacks, as he lies in a state of delirium (a delirium aided by whisky).

Harry had been an idealistic young aspiring writer with ambitions to write Serious Literature. He had been encouraged in this ambition by his Uncle Bill (Leo G. Carroll). Bill had advised the young wordsmith to dump his first love, Connie, to devote himself to his Art. This would set the pattern for Harry’s life - a long series of attempts to balance his professional ambitions with his personal life with the women in his life always coming second.

Harry belongs to that school that believes that if you want to be a writer you must first first experience life. Experiencing life means traveling to exotic locations and having lots of encounters with death. Big game hunting, wars, bullfights, anything involving death is good. Anything involving nihilism or artistic self-absorption is also good and Harry finds plenty of both in the pretentious but shallow world of 1930s arty Paris.

The problem with this is that it’s a way of life that doesn’t really appeal to women and Harry can’t live without women. It was a particular problem with the great love of his life, Cynthia (Ava Gardner). Cynthia had this crazy idea that marriage meant making a life together, having a home and raising children. She soon finds out that Harry doesn’t see it that way at all.

Eventually Harry ends up with Helen (Susan Hayward) although oddly enough we find out very little about their actual relationship. All that we know for certain is that Helen has always believed (undoubtedly correctly) that Harry saw her as a mere Cynthia-substitute. Helen has done everything possible to be the sort of wife Harry wants but it hasn’t worked. 

The problems with this film come down to the problems with the basic idea, which presumably means they come down to the source material. We have to buy the idea that the rich successful Harry is a failure because he has committed the one unpardonable literary sin -  he writes books that people actually want to read. We also have to buy the idea that Harry is consumed with self-loathing because people like his books. Even more, we have to accept that he is right to do so.

Along with this we must accept that Harry’s descent into alcoholism and self-pity is perfectly understandable. After all the only possible response to seeing one’s books on the best-seller lists is to start drinking oneself to death. We must further accept that Harry’s deplorable treatment of the women in his life is quite acceptable since being a writer justifies everything, even behaving like a spoilt selfish child. In fact we’re asked to go along with the idea that writers are Special and are allowed to treat other people like dirt while they wallow is self-indulgence.

Gregory Peck does his best and his performance is more successful than one might expect but one can’t get away from the unfortunate truth that he is not really the right actor for such a part. Ava Gardner, surely the most underrated actress of her era, easily steals the picture. She is magnetic and convincing. Susan Hayward tries very hard and does remarkably well  but she is hamstrung by the fact that the script gives her nothing to work with. Her part is ludicrously underwritten which is a great shame because Helen is potentially the most interesting character in the movie. Unfortunately screenwriter Casey Robinson was clearly uninterested in her.

The movie looks gorgeous. There’s some use of stock footage and copious use of rear projection but the rear projection is extraordinarily well done. The African photography is superb.

The Region 4 DVD from Fox is barebones apart from a trailer but the transfer is excellent. 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a movie about failure so it’s perhaps fitting that the movie itself is a failure. It is however visually impressive and boasts fine performances from Ava Gardner and (despite a script that offers her virtually nothing to latch onto) Susan Hayward. Worth seeing if you’re an Ava Gardner fan plus the African scenes look terrific. Probably worthy a rental.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Marriage of Convenience (1960)

Marriage of Convenience was one of the many Edgar Wallace adaptations cranked out by Britain’s Merton Park Studios at the beginning of the 60s. These were B-movies but were screened on American television as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.

Marriage of Convenience, released theatrically in Britain in 1960, is a fairly typical example of these films. It’s a low-key crime thriller that reaches no great heights but provides decent entertainment.

It has quite a clever opening sequence. Barbara Blair (Jennifer Daniels) arrives at the registry office to get married. Her husband-to-be arrives for the wedding in handcuffs. Larry Wilson (John Cairney) is serving a prison term for armed robbery. He’s been given permission to marry because Barbara is pregnant. 

The wedding takes an unusual turn. In fact the whole thing was an elaborate prison break scheme.

Now Larry is out but what he wants is the money that he stole from the bank. It should be no problem. His girlfriend Tina (Moira Redmond) is looking after it for him. Or at least that was the plan, but the plan has gone wrong.

Inspector Bruce (Harry H. Corbett) is on Larry’s trail and the trail will lead him (and lead Larry) to Inspector Maudle (John van Eyssen), now retired. 

Larry’s prison break scheme had also involved Barbara’s stepfather, habitual (but not very successful) criminal Sam Spencer (Russell Waters). Inspector Bruce is on Sam’s trail as well. The plot is a series of double-crosses, in typical Edgar Wallace style.

The screenplay, by Robert Banks Stewart, is not overly complex but it has just enough twists to keep things reasonably interesting. Director Clive Donner does as much as he can with what was obviously a very limited budget. He doesn’t try anything fancy but he keeps things moving.

Harry H. Corbett would become much more famous for comedy and at first it’s just a little off-putting seeing him playing things very straight. One keeps expecting him to do or say something funny but his performance is solid enough. John Cairney is pretty good as Larry, a criminal whose biggest problem is that he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. He’s just not cut out for big time crime but big time crime is where his ambitions lie.

John van Eyssen is good as the smooth ex-cop who can’t help being condescending to his former subordinate, the much more working class Inspector Bruce. Moira Redmond makes an effective would-be femme fatale while Jennifer Daniels does well as the good-natured Barbara who is (like Larry) ill-suited to a life of crime.

Network have released all 47 of the Merton Park Edgar Walllace thrillers in a series of DVD boxed sets. Most of the sets include around seven films with usually another non-Wallace B-film included as a bonus. Marriage of Convenience gets an excellent anamorphic transfer. 

With a running time of just 58 minutes Marriage of Convenience is strictly B-movie material but it’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable little crime film as long as you don’t set your expectations too high. Recommended.